Allen stands at the corner of 48th and Telegraph, swaying gently in his greasy jacket, pajama bottoms, and worn out Crocs. “Got any change?” he asks. Elspeth speeds up.
“Aw man! Why not today?” says Allen.
No, not today, Elspeth replies to Allen in her head. It’s easiest to act like she doesn’t see him, though there’s no escaping her own self and its shadowy guilt. What’s the right thing to do? She walks past one or two Allens every day. She can’t fix their lives. A donation to a reputable organization might help Allen more in the long run than giving him fifty cents today, right?
And who likes being yelled at? Giving away money to protect herself from being yelled at feels awful, and sometimes Allen yells. But he’s probably mentally ill and doesn’t have psychological care, or any care at all. Maybe he’s frustrated. Who wouldn’t be? Maybe he’s even more frustrated than she is.
The tangle of thoughts hits a dead end, as usual. Allen is one of many entrants in the Elspeth street-person lottery: Once in a while Elspeth pays out a jackpot of words, money, or food, but usually she just closes up, grips her purse, and walks faster.
Elspeth shrugs her shoulders as if to shed an unwelcome touch on her shoulder, and Allen and his fellows slip from her mind. She passes the game store and the cafe, and she’s about to pass Sagrada Sacred Arts too, but suddenly the brakes go on. It’s like the sidewalk just turned sticky, and her feet go into slow motion.
Why not today?
It’s not Allen she’s thinking of, but something else. She turns the knob on Sagrada’s door and throws it open so hard the little bell doesn’t ring. Maybe she took it by surprise.
Candles, cards, chimes, charms, icons, oils; she steers past all of it, concentrating on the carpet, hurrying towards her goal: the rack of Catholic saints on little plastic cards, in particular the one with a beatific St. Francis of Assisi on the front and the peace prayer on the back. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love….”
It wasn’t St. Francis who wrote that prayer, but never mind; she tugs the card from the rack, spins on the ball of her foot, and heads to the counter.
“Oh, I appreciate this prayer,” says the sales woman, holding the card and ringing it up. Elspeth says nothing as she lays exact change on the counter—a dollar nine with tax. She takes the card and makes for the door, which she shuts calmly behind her. This time she sets the bell ringing.
“I have to tell Louise about this,” she thinks, resuming her walk down Telegraph Avenue. She weaves to avoid the hipsters lining up outside Bakesale Betty’s. She wants to talk to someone who might understand. Someone like Louise, her spiritual director. How would she explain this to Louise?
“I pass Sagrada almost every day,” Elspeth imagines herself telling Louise. She’s careful not to move her lips. “It’s like a spiritual head shop, full of paraphernalia we would’ve called ‘New Age’ back in the day. New Age stuff always made me nervous.”
“Nervous?” prompts imaginary Louise.
“I’m not directly nervous about that stuff now, but I remember being nervous, which makes me nervous in a second-hand sort of way. I was trained to be nervous about potentially out-of-bounds spiritual things, which included things like Catholicism.”
Oops. Louise is Catholic, isn’t she?
But imaginary Louise looks as calm and attentive as ever, so Elspeth’s train of thought chugs on. “Nowadays I think this is kind of crazy, but someone once gave me a book about how Marian devotion is demonic, and a cult. There’s a lot of demonic activity out there masquerading as good stuff; Satan is an angel of light after all, which makes spiritual people like me easy to deceive. Or so I was told. Back in the day. Back when I was ‘all in,’ before I realized that religion doesn’t have to be quite so all or nothing.”
Imaginary Louise nods. She doesn’t need to hear this part; Elspeth has spoken often about her fundamentalist upbringing.
Elspeth’s mind wanders. What “is” she now, anyway? Which box would she check if someone sent her a survey and promised her a one in ten chance of winning an iPod if she filled out every question, and what if one of the questions was “What kind of Christian are you?,” and what if they didn’t mean it in the sarcastic way Allen might?
She stops to look around. “Wait, where am I? Did I pass 51st already? Oh never mind. Where was I?”
“Coming up Telegraph, and wondering about Allen,” says imaginary Louise.
“No,” says Elspeth to imaginary Louise. “I was uncomfortable going into Sagrada. Aren’t you listening?”
“Sorry,” says imaginary Louise. “You always walk past that person, and you were secondarily nervous. Go on.”
That person? Is Louise still stuck on Allen? “Yes, I always walk past that place,” says Elspeth, wresting the conversation back under her control. Good grief, this is her mind, isn’t it? The conversation should go how she wants it to go. “I wanted that St. Francis card. I knew they’d have it at Sagrada, and I even had a good theory about which part of the store it would be in, so when I finally ran in there, I found what I wanted right away.”
“So,” says imaginary Louise, “now you have the card…?”
“Yes, I have the card. You see, I had a dog once, a beagle mix. He belonged to me and my housemates in college.”
“Don’t worry, I have all day,” says imaginary Louise. She leans back, slips off her shoes, and settles deeper into her blue leather rocker recliner. Imaginary spiritual directors know how to handle these inside-the-head narratives, which, as we all know, can meander.
“That dog loved other animals,” Elspeth continues. “He would watch squirrels out the window, and he’d beg to go out, so we’d let him. But instead of chasing the squirrels, he’d lie down on the lawn and watch. We thought he’d bark, or that he’d pounce when the squirrels got closer, but he never did. He’d only watch.”
“Wow,” says imaginary Louise. She says that a lot.
“So we named him Francis,” says Elspeth. “As in the saint. And it got me thinking: A religious man who loved animals, or who supposedly did. What part do animals play in faith, I wonder? Is it okay to hear God’s voice through animals? I think the way I experience God through animals is a legitimate part of my faith. It’s taken a long time, but I’ve come to see it that way.”
“Yes, it’s been a theme that I’ve heard from you over the years,” says imaginary Louise.
Elspeth’s mind is quiet, and she imagines watching the candle on the altar in Louise’s office. Why did that story about Francis the dog come up? She’s glad it did.
Imaginary Louise cuts into her reverie: “So … Francis of Assisi, Francis the saint. Is there more about that?”
“Hmm,” says Elspeth. “Maybe it’s not the real Francis that feels so important, just the part about him and the animals. Taking animals seriously as fellow creatures, in some sense equals, because we’re just as dependent on God, on the Spirit, on the Earth, as they are.”
“Fellow creatures, equal to us in their dependence,” echoes imaginary Louise.
“Yes, and God speaks through them. That part is important to me. I don’t know whether Francis believed that part.”
“But you do,” says imaginary Louise. “Fellow creatures, as dependent on God as we are. And God speaks through them.”
“Yes! They deserve our respect.” She inadvertently says this last part out loud just as a lanky kid in skinny jeans swerves past on a skateboard, but he doesn’t give any sign of having heard.
“So you respect them,” says imaginary Louise, ignoring the distraction. “What does that respect look like, in practical terms?”
“It looks like not harming them, making sure they’re cared for, giving them the benefit of my resources. Recognizing them as co-habitants of this planet. Taking them seriously and listening for God’s voice to speak through them—which of course it does.”
Imaginary Louise is silent.
The silence continues.
“What?” says Elspeth.
“What is it!?” Elspeth is getting anxious about whatever might come next.
“Well, I was thinking,” says imaginary Louise at last, “that St. Francis of Assisi is best known for his compassion for the poor.”
Damn. There it is, that prickling sensation along the back of Elspeth’s conscience. It’s a sort of out-of-body experience, a shift in perception where for just a moment she’s transported to a new vantage point, a place Godward of where she usually is. And the discrepancy between what she sees from here and what she usually sees when she considers herself is troubling—but also somehow okay. For her, it’s a flash of insight, but for God, it’s no surprise. Elspeth is loved exactly as much now as she was five minutes ago.
She’s at her apartment door with a hand on the doorknob, eyes unfocused in a blank stare. She comes to herself and plunges her arm into her purse to retrieve her keys, then opens the door.
When she’s finally inside with the door bolted from the inside, she lies on the couch without bothering to take off her sneakers. She flings an arm across her face. “Ugh,” she says.
If she’s so respectful of animals, so fired up to share resources with them and listen for God to speak through them, if she goes so far as to consider them in some sense her equals, then why does she feel so differently about Allen?
She wills herself to think harder about Francis. The saint, not the dog. He was from a wealthy family but gave up the family business and embraced poverty to be in solidarity with the poor. She knew that, even before Louise brought it up. And who is Louise but herself? She, Elspeth, brought this whole idea up herself. She led herself into her own trap.
And a trap it is, because this problem is unsolvable. How can she help everyone in the universe who’s sick or sad or in need of a hot lunch or a trip to the hospital, everyone who’s in need of someone to believe in them or give them a hand up instead of a hand out? It’s overwhelming. It’s paralyzing.
Another thought cuts in—it’s imaginary Louise, who apparently isn’t finished with this spiritual-direction session. “I don’t think this is a dead end,” she says. “On the one hand, you’re perplexed about people like Allen—you feel compassion, guilt, frustration, and fear. It’s complicated.” Imaginary Louise holds out her left hand, palm up, to represent this bundle of emotions.
Hmm. This is annoying, but something helpful might be coming. “Go on,” says Elspeth, taking her arm from in front of her eyes and staring at the cracked paint on the ceiling.
“And on the other hand,” says imaginary Louise as she holds out her right hand parallel to her left, “you’re inspired by St. Francis of Assisi. He reminds you of your own compassion, your respect for animals, and your willingness to hear God’s voice speaking to you through all of creation.”
Imaginary Louise pauses to make sure Elspeth is following, then continues. “So I wonder how St. Francis’s wisdom and encouragement—” here she gestures with her right hand, “might inform your questions and feelings about Allen,” and here she gestures with her left hand. “Is it possible that these topics have something to say to each other? “
“Ugh,” says Elspeth again. She pulls the laminated card from her back pocket and examines St. Francis. The tonsured head, the plain robe, the peaceful expression. He’s gesturing to ten or fifteen birds in a nearby tree as if he’s explaining the rules of a fun game they’re all about to play. Somehow he manages to look both naïve and knowing at the same time.
Would giving everything away, wearing the same thing every day, spending her life’s energy caring for the poor, feel like freedom? Like joy? “Yes, that’s the only way,” she thinks. “I’ll have to make a clean break of it, quit my job, give away all my money and all this crap in my apartment….”
But just as quickly as this fantastic idea comes to her, it leaves again, and the guilt and paralysis return. “I just can’t do it, it’s too much!” she says to the ceiling.
What might Louise say now? But it doesn’t matter what Louise would say; Elspeth knows the answer: It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Maybe she can start where she is and take normal, human-sized steps. She doesn’t have to do it all, or save everyone—she only has to do what’s possible for her. Maybe there’s a middle path. Maybe something within her can shift, even just a little bit, into an ever-so-slightly closer alignment with love. Maybe it just did.
And what might the next human-sized, Elspeth-sized, step look like?
Once again, as soon as she poses the question, she knows the answer. Next time she sees Allen, she’ll look him in the eye, and she won’t veer to the opposite side of the sidewalk. She’ll be consistent and treat him like a person every time she sees him, not just sometimes. She’ll respect her own limits, and if she doesn’t feel safe, she’ll move away—but she’ll also listen more deeply and go more slowly. She’ll watch for glimpses of God’s light, even in the discomfort.
And she’ll try to speak, even if all she can say is, “Sorry, not today.”
Suddenly she’s exhausted. She has an hour before she meets a friend for a walk, so she lets her thoughts go slack and her mind ease into a quiet blank. “I have to tell Louise about this,” she thinks, drifting off to sleep with her hand over the St. Francis card. ◼